Last year one of my professors started class by sitting cross-legged on the desk at the front of the room. “Close your eyes, everyone” she instructed. “And focus on your breathing. Deeeeep breaths…” I smiled and complied. She was the kind of peaceful woman who would do something like this with the class, and I loved it.
“Breathe deeply!” she directed after a few quiet minutes of breathing. “Listen to the sound of your breath!” Her slow inhale and exhale became increasingly audible over the next minute. Then she spoke again as we continued breathing. “The ancient Jewish people never spoke the name of God aloud. This practice continues today among many Jews. Out of reverence, they refer to God by many labels, but never the Divine’s intimate, personal name.” She began her rhyming breathing again, this time louder than ever before. She inhaled: Yahhhhhhhhh…. And exhaled: Wehhhhhhhhhhh. Yahhhhhhhhh…Wehhhhhhhhhhhh. Yahhhhhhhh…Wehhhhhhhh. “The ancient Jewish people never spoke the name of God, Yahweh, aloud,” she continued, “but with every subtle, unthinking breath they took, their bodies whispered it: Yah-Weh. Yah-Weh. And with every breath we, too, whisper the name of God. Yah-Weh. Yah-Weh. Our bodies are calling out to God with every breath. Yah-weh. Yah-weh…”
One of my best friends, Christina, suffers from a chronic illness that has left her battling with her body for years now. Some days, weeks, and months are better than others, and this is a difficult uncertainty she must live with. In the meantime she started running half marathons to fundraise for foundation that does medical research for the disease. Christina experienced this in-class breathing meditation with me, and she often tells me that she listens to her body as she runs, whispering “Yah-weh. Yah-weh. Yah-weh,” and it is a great comfort to her. Even her struggling body, with its precarious heath, calls out to God with every moment. Yah-weh. Yah-weh…
In the moments when I find it difficult to pray—when I am distracted by busyness and anxiety, or angry with God, or frustrated by the people who also claim my God—I pause to pay attention to the prayer that my body already sings. The one it is always singing. It makes me think, “This is a start: Just being, just breathing. This is a step toward God today. Yah-weh.”
Jessica Coblentz is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University, and a current resident of Los Angeles where she works in young adult and campus ministries. She will begin an MTS at Harvard Divinity School in the fall. Follow her writing online at www.jessicacoblentz.blogspot.com.